by GK Strategy 10th March, 2017
3 min read

Want to win an election? Hire a data scientist

Fake news is a distraction, targeted advertising and data are shaping the future of electoral politics.

A Conservative majority in 2015, Brexit and the election of President Trump all took established political wisdom by surprise and have left commentators and polling companies scratching their heads.

Whilst a lot has been written about the rise of populism and the disconnection of traditional political elites from an increasingly sceptical electorate, there is another hidden, and altogether more interesting, commonality between all three – the power of data and targeted advertising through social media, primarily Facebook.

All three campaigns prioritised spending on digital channels in a way not seen before, and beat opponents whose thinking was rooted in Twentieth Century.

Crucially, these channels allowed targeting of highly specific demographics in key marginals.

Perhaps more crucially, this spending currently falls outside regulated limits. It is time electoral regulations caught up.

Yes We Can

Despite the three campaigns all hailing from the right wing, use of these techniques actually started with Barack Obama’s Presidential campaign in 2008.

Entering the race as a junior Senator, Obama had a mountain to climb and ten months after declaring his candidacy in December 2007, he trailed Hillary Clinton by 26 points.

However, behind the scenes he had made a revolutionary appointment by hiring Joe Rospars’ company Blue State Digital (BSD) to build a ‘grassroots movement’ to organise and fundraise for the campaign.

Come election day, that ‘movement’ numbered 2 million Facebook friends, 13 million email addresses, 14.5 million hours of YouTube views, $500 million raised —and ultimately the Presidency.

It was no surprise he re-hired them in 2011.

Data Data Everywhere

Key to success for Obama, and to the campaigns that have followed, is the use of data.

In 2008 the revolutionary step was collecting data on an enormous scale that gave Obama the ability to reach out to millions of supporters without having to knock on doors or pay for expensive TV adverts.

Whilst the 2012 campaign from the outside looked much the same as the 2008 one, behind the scenes the thinking had taken another revolutionary step – enriching the millions of data points they had collected in 2008.

Obama’s re-election bid was the first political campaign in history to hire a CTO, Harper Reed, who built a crack team of specialists poached from some of the biggest tech brands around.

Central to the strategy was ‘Project Narwhal’ – a database which aimed to cross-reference voter data on an unprecedented scale, enabling the campaign to target messages, resources and, most importantly, spending.

These techniques were not new in themselves, understanding the power of personal data is at the heart of what has turned Google into a company with a market cap of approaching $600bn in under 20 years, what was new was applying it to politics.

Narwhal’s threat was recognised by the Romney campaign, who launched their own rival ‘Project Orca’ (so named as the Orca is one of the few predators to the Narwhale) but late to the game they couldn’t match the analytical capabilities of the Democrats.

The Facebook Generation

Obama’s re-election wasn’t the only significant development in this story during 2012, in May of that year Facebook held its initial public offering, valuing the company at $90 billion.

With the IPO came the need to commercialise on the popularity of the site, with advertising being the star product. Advertisers quickly saw the benefit of being able to target users based on their profile information, and the company has capitalised on it – in 2012 it made $4.2 billion from advertising, by 2016 that figure was almost $27 billion.

The other key shift that was taking place was the growth of Facebook’s user base, not just in numbers (there were 1.86 billion monthly active Facebook users in January 2017), but also the change in the user demographics – with younger people tempted away to Snapchat and other platforms there has been a huge growth in older Facebook users.

2015 Election

In 2015, it was also no surprise that both main parties turn to Obama campaign staffers to lead their efforts. In the Blue corner was Jim Messina, hired by Conservative campaign chief Lynton Crosby, while Labour turned to David Axelrod, a veteran of both Obama victories.

There are no restrictions in the UK on internet advertising, as there are for more traditional media, and the Tories spent £1.2m on Facebook advertising compared to Labour’s 16k, and £312k with Google (including YouTube) compared to Labour’s rather paltry £371.

The Conservatives targeted spend not only at voters in key marginals, but also at the older demographics who had joined Facebook and were more likely to turn out and vote for them.

If you weren’t in one of these key seats or didn’t fit the target profile then you wouldn’t have known it was happening, which lead to criticism of the campaign and how it was being run right up to Election Day.

On the day, however, the voters turned out to vote Conservative on a scale that the polling companies had not seen coming.


Eleven months on from the election and Britain was facing another plebiscite, this time on whether the country should remain part of the European Union.

The contest became the most expensive referendum ever fought in the UK, costing £32m, and recognising what had happened in the general election both sides started ploughing money into Facebook advertising from the off, with the government alone spending almost £2m of public money on online adverts.

Vote Leave, appreciating the power of data and unhappy with what was available on the market, decided to build their own system called VICS, the ‘Voter Intention Collection System’. They even launched their own smartphone app that encouraged users to sign up friends and accessed contact lists from the devices it was downloaded on.

Dominic Cummings, Campaign Director of Vote Leave, describes the campaign as ‘the first campaign in the UK to put almost all our money into digital communication then have it partly controlled by people whose normal work was subjects like quantum information’.

Perhaps the most interesting part of this approach is the £3.5m paid to a small Canadian tech company called AggregateIQ, almost 40% of the official Vote Leave budget.

AggregateIQ helped Vote Leave target specific demographics through targeted online advertising, with Cummings stating (in the same blog) that “in the official 10 week campaign we served about one billion targeted digital adverts, mostly via Facebook and strongly weighted to the period around postal voting and the last 10 days of the campaign.”

Come Election Day, and once again the vote swung against the political consensus.


And so to November 2016, and back to the States where it all began. Once again an unlikely outsider challenged the establishment candidate, and once again seemed outgunned and outspent.

Yet against all expectations Trump was elected.

The Trump campaign started, as Obama had in 2012, with a data platform, this time called ‘Project Alamo’ and a digital team headed by the founder of a marketing agency, Brad Parscale. Project Alamo took what had gone before and expanded it on a massive scale – it supposedly contains data on “220 million people and approximately 4,000 to 5,000 individual data points about the online and offline life of each person”.

When Parscale came on board he spent all of his initial meagre budget on Facebook, taking the view, “I always wonder why people in politics act like this stuff is so mystical… it’s the same shit we use in commercial, just has fancier names.”

Parscale then used the Project Alamo database to find ‘Lookalike Audiences’ on Facebook to grow his reach and, once Steve Bannon joined the campaign in August 2016, they employed the services of Cambridge Analytica to profile their audience and deliver over 100,000 distinct pieces of creative content targeting specific voters.

Whilst Clinton was spending $200 million on television ads in the final months of the campaign, Trump’s team was A/B testing messaging on an enormous scale to find the right hooks – for the third presidential election they claim to have run 175,000 variations of Facebook ads.

Voter Suppression

One of the most interesting, and perhaps concerning, elements of Trump’s digital campaign was targeting of Clinton voters trying to undermine her support rather than bolster his own.

A senior official in the Trump campaign admitted “We have three major voter suppression operations under way” targeting the demographics that Clinton needed to win – idealistic white liberals, young women, and African Americans.

The targeting was designed to discourage potential Clinton supporters from turning on for her on the day, and included tactics such as running animations of her controversial “super-predator” comments from 1996 to segments of the African American community.

It is hard to say how effective this strategy was, particularly given other voter suppression tactics in multiple states, but turnout was down considerably on Election Day .

The Future is Data

After World War I, Edward Bernays took what he had learned from the US wartime propaganda office, the Committee on Public Information, and founded the world’s first public relations firm in New York. He understood that the same methodologies used to rally people behind the war effort in times of crisis could be used in peace to stimulate people’s desires for products.

Over the Twentieth Century, the perception of society as a collective unit broke down, and the ‘cult of the individual’ took over. Brands, and later political parties, followed suit and were still able to communicate en masse by appealing to broad groups loosely defined by systems such as the NRS social grades or Blair’s ‘Mondeo man’.

Since the rise of social media, individualism has grown even further and we create homages to our idealised selves on social media platforms.

The individual has become increasingly hard to target in large groups, something brands began to understand in the late 1990s with the rise of CRM systems, loyalty programmes and the concept of ‘big data’. Understanding, profiling and predicting behaviour of their customers has become central to the success of commercial organisations, and something that political parties have been late to appreciate.

By taking commercial methodologies and applying them to politics, these highlighted campaigns have opened the door to micro-targeting where each individuals’ experience of a campaign could be completely different, and data analytics of your online footprint will dictate who communicates with you and how.

It is vital that electoral regulation needs to catch up with the tactics, regulatory systems designed for an analogue age need reform to protect the vulnerable and uphold the integrity of our democracies, a debate which has already started in the UK with the Electoral Commission recently announcing an investigation into spending during the EU referendum.

With a handful of other key elections coming up in the next year, starting in France this spring, the real battle might be one we never actually see in public or on the TV, secreted away from the campaign trail on a handful of people’s screens in amongst the cat videos.

The one thing we can say is, if you want to win an election, hire a data scientist.

I wonder if Marine le Pen has been watching.

Published on Pulse: http://bit.ly/2mqqNGs 

Get in touch: harry@gkstrategy.com

See more articles by GK Strategy

sort news by category

Insight, Strategy, Impact,

2022, AI, apprenticeships, awards, B2G, Biden, Bills, Blueprint, bolt on, Boris, Boris Johnson, Brexit, business, care, careers, Chancellor, childcare, circular economy, climate change, climate crisis, clinical trials, commissioning, Communications, Consumer, consumer demands, COP, covid, COVID 19, covid recovery, Crisis comms, culture, d, David Laws, decarbonisation, defence, Deregulation, Devolution, Digital, diplomacy, Disruption, diversity, Due Diligence, early years, economic policy, Edtech, Education, elections, electricity, Energy, Energy and Environment, energy efficiency, energy security, energy supply, engagement, Environment, Equality, ESG, EU, europe, evictions, exit plan, finance, Financial Services, food and drink, food sector, food strategy, foreign office, fossil fuels, gas, general election, General News, Germany, gig economy, GK culture, gk report, global politics, Government, government affairs, green, green energy, HE, Head of Policy, Health, health & Care Bill, health and care, health and social care, health funding, health insights, Healthcare, Hendy, Home Office, housing, HS2, i have a voice, ICS, immigration, Immigration Bill, infra, infrastructure, insight, insight report, insights, integrated review, integration, international development, internship, Investment, Investor, Investor Backed Businesses, Investor Services, investors, Ioan, IWD, Jack Sansum, Jeremy Corbyn, job, Labour, labour conference, Labour market, landlords, Legislation, legistation, Levelling up, levy, life sciences, local government, lockdown, medical devices, Medicines, membership bodies, mental health, mental health services, nationalisation, NHS, no, No deal, nordic model, nurseries, overseas aid, parliament, pharma, pharmaceuticals, Planning, plastic packaging, policy, Political Due Diligence, Politics, POV, Pride Month, Prime Minister, Private Equity, Privatisation, Procurement Bill, property, Public Affairs, Public Relations, Public spending, Queen's Speech, rail, recruitment, REF, refugees, regulation, renewable power, renters, renting reforms, REPowerEU, reshuffle, sales, Schools, Scotland, Scott, security, Select Committee, select committees, skills, Social Care, solar power, Spending Review, spring statement, Strategic Communications, students, sustainability, SWP, Tax, tech, Technology, technologyy, tenants, The Conservative Party, The Labour Party, trade bodies, transformation, Transport, uk, UK Politics, united states, university, US, US election, US investment, Wales, Waste, White paper, wind, wind power, Winter Plan, women, Workplace,